Guest Post: 4 Tips for Developing Compelling Characters


By Marianne Stenger

This post was originally published on The Australian College of Journalism is part of Open Colleges, and provides writing and media-related training.

Characters can make or break your whole story, because if readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t care about anything else, no matter how many exciting plot twists you throw in. So how do you go about developing characters that jump off the page? Here are a few tips.

1. Don’t get too caught up with how they look

Although it’s important to include details about a character’s physical appearance such as hair colour, style or build, you shouldn’t get too carried away describing a character’s outward appearance.

Who your characters are is far more important than how they look, so rather than using a whole page to describe what someone looks like, you can leave little clues as you develop their story and personality. This will allow your readers to form their own image of how he or she might look by using all the hints you’ve been dropping along the way.

2. Give them a strong back story

A bit of mystery surrounding a character can be a good thing, but you still need to create a back story that gives him or her some depth.

Where are they from? Do they have siblings or close friends? Are they sociable or do they prefer to be on their own? What do they fear? Are their personal quirks or eccentricities tied to their experiences growing up? These details can be revealed in bits and pieces as the story develops. Of course, you may not even end up including everything in your final draft, but answering questions like this will give you a better sense of who your protagonists are, which will ultimately help you to make them more believable and compelling.

3. Don’t make villains and heroes too black and white

In real life, people are never completely perfect nor are they ever purely evil, so if you want your characters to seem realistic, the heroes must have flaws and weaknesses and the villains must also have likeable or admirable traits.

Once you get past the old cliché of “Good guys vs. Bad guys,” you’ll be able to develop characters that are actually believable and true to life. For instance, your protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to be a good person, and your antagonist might have very good reasons for doing something questionable.

4. Stay true to the character

Once you’ve developed a character in a certain way, you can’t suddenly make him or her do something that is totally at odds with the personality you have spent pages and pages creating.

For example, if you’ve written your main character as an introverted computer hacker who interacts with the outside world primarily from behind his computer screen, you can’t suddenly have him leading the conversation and charming the ladies at a dinner party, because it wouldn’t fit with how your readers have come to see him.

This is not to say that you can never have characters evolve or do something unexpected, but it does need to be well-thought out and make sense with the rest of the story.


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